Reasons to File an Early Tax Return

Avoid the rush and protect your identity

Even though many taxpayers file their tax returns on or about April 15 each year, there is no need to put it off until the last minute. Indeed, filing an early tax return can make sense for various reasons, such as getting your refund sooner or minimizing the risk of identity theft.

Even if you don't file early, there are good reasons to begin your tax preparation as soon as you can. For starters, it gives you the time you need to collect the documents and information required to claim all of your deductions—so you can avoid the headache of last-minute stress over receipts. What's more, if you use a paid preparer, your accountant will have more flexibility and may be able to start working on your accounts sooner.

Please note that for the 2021 tax year, the tax season begins on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, meaning Jan. 24 is when the IRS begins accepting and processing 2021 tax year returns. Also, due to the federal holiday, the tax filing deadline is Monday, April 18, 2022, for most taxpayers.

Key Takeaways

  • Early filing gets you a faster refund.
  • By not rushing, you have time to avoid mistakes that could lead to an audit.
  • Tax planning gives you time to estimate capital gains, harvest tax losses, make last-minute charitable deductions, and shift some deductible items to the most useful tax year.

New Standard Deduction

One of the most important decisions taxpayers have to make is whether to itemize deductions or take the new, larger standard deduction available since 2018. Here's a rundown of the standard deductions for the 2021 and 2022 tax years:

Standard Deductions for 2021 and 2022
 Filing Status 2021 Standard Deduction 2022 Standard Deduction
Single $12,550 $12,950
Married Filing Separately $12,550 $12,950
Heads of Household $18,800 $19,400
Married Filing Jointly $25,100 $25,900
Surviving Spouses $25,100 $25,900

Sources: Internal Revenue Service

There are additional deductions if you are at least age 65 and/or legally blind by the end of the tax year (if you file a joint return, each spouse who qualifies can claim the additional amount). If you are both 65 or older and legally blind, you can claim twice the additional deduction. Here's a rundown of the additional deductions:

Additional Standard Deductions for 2021 and 2022
 Filing Status 2021 Additional Standard Deduction 2022 Additional Standard Deduction
Single & Heads of Household    
65+ or Blind  $1,700  $1,750
65+ and Blind  $3,400  $3,500
Married Filing Jointly & Married Filing Separately    
65+ or Blind  $1,350 $1,400
65+ and Blind  $2,700 $2,800

Sources: Internal Revenue Service

The sooner you begin working on your tax return, the sooner you will be able to decide which method is right for you.

SALT Tax Deduction Limit

The tax reforms launched in 2018 also limit your total state and local tax deduction (SALT) to $10,000. This cap may be another incentive to take the standard deduction if your SALT deduction is higher than the new limit and you don’t have a whole lot of other deductions.

Getting a head start on your taxes will help you avoid unpleasant errors when it comes to this important part of your tax return.

File Early for a Faster Refund

By filing early, you can avoid procrastinating, give yourself peace of mind, and check this important item off your new year’s to-do list. Once the IRS says it will begin processing returns, why not turn yours in and get this unpleasant task over with?

For the 2020 filing season, the IRS issued refunds to 129.8 million filers, averaging $2,815 per refund. If you have money coming to you, there’s no reason to let the government keep it longer than necessary. Filing sooner means a faster refund because the IRS won’t be as busy early in the tax season as it will be in April.

Some people count on their income tax refunds to pay major bills. Filing early puts the money in your hands sooner and may help you avoid taking out an expensive short-term loan to cover those expenses, especially if you’re still paying off your holiday bills.

File Early to Avoid Identity Theft

The sooner you file, the less time there is for an identity thief to file in your name and take your refund. This can lead to all sorts of mayhem, especially if the thief claims false deductions, fails to report income, or otherwise taints a tax return in your name. Fixing a mess like this can take months.

Filing early makes you much less vulnerable to identity theft. You'll file before an identity thief can step in and file in your name.

Unfortunately, you may not know you're a victim of identity theft until the IRS notifies you that there's a possible issue with your return. According to the IRS, you should watch out for potential tax-related identity theft if:

  • You get a letter from the IRS inquiring about a suspicious tax return that you didn't file.
  • You can't e-file your tax return because of a duplicate Social Security number.
  • You get a tax transcript in the mail that you didn't request.
  • You get an IRS notice that an online account has been created in your name (and you didn't make it).
  • You get an IRS notice that your existing online account has been accessed or disabled when you haven't taken any action.
  • You get an IRS notice that you owe additional tax or refund offset, or that you've had actions taken against you for a year for which you did not file a tax return.
  • IRS records indicate you received wages or other income from an employer you didn't work for.
  • You've been assigned an Employer Identification Number (EIN) without requesting one.

If your Social Security number is compromised and you suspect you are a victim of tax-related identity theft, respond immediately to any IRS notice you receive by calling the number provided on the notice. If your e-filed return is rejected due to a duplicate filing with your Social Security number, complete IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit. Visit IdentityTheft.gov for steps you should take right away to protect yourself and your financial accounts.

File Early to Avoid the Tax-Season Rush

Filing early gives you time to fully understand any changes to tax law or deal with changes in your life that may alter your filing status. Mistakes from rushing at the last minute can trigger audits that can lead to penalties and interest. Given changes brought on by the TCJA, this point is more important than ever.

Your certified public accountant (CPA) or other tax preparer will not be as busy in January or February as in April. Early access means your CPA will have additional time to consider your situation more carefully and help you with your return.

If you are in the process of buying a home or going back to college (and applying for financial aid), you'll need information from your most recent tax return. Preparing your taxes early will provide you with the most up-to-date information available.

Avoiding Amended Returns

Starting early gives you the time to file an accurate return. An inaccurate return will likely become an amended return. Amended returns invite audits. Here are some things to watch out for as you pursue accuracy.

  • Mistakes in official documents. Check all incoming statements, including W-2s, 1099s, interest statements, and anything used to justify a deduction. Companies, banks, and financial institutions make mistakes. Catch them before you file.
  • Forms that arrive late. Early filing may cause you to miss forms, including a 1099 or K-1 that arrives late. Make sure you have all the documentation you need before you click “send” or drop your return in the mailbox.
  • Incomplete amendments. If you do have to amend your return, don’t correct only the things that are to your advantage. Correct anything that is wrong.
  • Tax form changes. As a result of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017, the layout of Form 1040 changed. In fact, if you previously used Forms 1040-EZ or 1040-A, those forms were eliminated. And if you're an older adult, you can now opt to use the new "U.S. Tax Return for Seniors," 1040-SR.
  • Tax-Law updates. Legislation passed before April 15 may not be incorporated into paper tax forms or tax software that has not been updated. Watch the news. Be on the lookout for changes that might have been missed. If necessary, you can file an amended return.

For tax year 2017, for example, private mortgage insurance (PMI) was not initially an allowable itemized deduction. On Feb 9, 2018, a tax law reinstated the deductibility of PMI for taxpayers with less than $100,000 in taxable income. By that point, Form 1098, Mortgage Interest Statement, had already been mailed to taxpayers by their lenders. After the tax law change, an amended Form 1098 had to be sent out by lending institutions. Qualifying taxpayers who had already filed taxes needed to file an amended return to include the additional deduction.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) enacted on March 11, 2021, excluded up to $10,200 of unemployment compensation paid in 2020 for taxpayers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) under $150,000. By the time ARPA was enacted, some taxpayers had already filed their tax returns. However, the IRS later announced that those taxpayers would not have to file amended returns—the IRS would automatically determine the correct taxable amount of unemployment compensation.

Shifting Tax Burdens

If you take that head start before Dec. 31, you will have time to estimate capital-gains distributions, harvest losses, contribute to a 529 savings plan, or make last-minute charitable contributions. You can also take advantage of the opportunity to shift deductible items—such as property taxes, business expenses, or even mortgage payments—to whichever year makes the most sense tax-wise.

You can still maximize contributions to a company 401(k) and/or any individual retirement account (IRA) plans you have and make deposits to your health savings accounts (HSAs) until April 15 of the year following your tax return date.

Time to Save

If you owe money to the IRS, filing early gives you time to save up. Remember, you don’t have to pay until the filing deadline. Waiting only to find out that you owe more than you expected could put a real crimp in your budget. The IRS suggests reviewing your withholdings and tax payments in the final quarter of the year to avoid a surprise tax bill.

The IRS has a Tax Withholding Estimator tool, so you can ensure you're withholding accurately.

The Bottom Line

Most experts agree that it’s best to start your return as early as possible. The decision to file early may depend on the complexity of your return if you are receiving a refund. Follow the advice of your financial or tax advisor to make sure your return is accurate and complete.

Should You E-File Your Taxes?

If you mail in your tax return, filing early avoids congestion and a crowded post office. Better to get it done and avoid the hassle. Of course, e-filing is often better than sending in a paper return. According to the IRS, here's why:

  • It's the fastest way to get a refund
  • It's secure (e-filing uses modern encryption technology to protect your information)
  • It's convenient
  • You get fast acknowledgment that your return has been accepted or rejected by the IRS
  • It's often free (many people can use the IRS Free File tool)
  • If you owe taxes, there are several options for making payments

When Is the Earliest You Can File Your Tax Return?

You can prepare your return as soon as you get your W-2s, 1099s, and other relevant tax documents. Employers must send W-2s and 1099s by Jan. 31 following the tax year, so yours could arrive as late as early February. If you get your tax documents sooner, you can file your tax return when the IRS starts accepting them—typically during the last week of January. In early January each year, the IRS issues a statement regarding the first day to file taxes.

For the 2021 tax year, the tax season begins on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, meaning Jan. 24 is when the IRS begins accepting and processing 2021 tax year returns.

What Is the Deadline for Filing a Tax Return?

Typically, individual income tax returns are due on or around April 15 following the tax year. For most people, your 2021 tax return will be due April 18, 2022, which is one day later due to the Emancipation Day holiday in the District of Columbia on April 15th. However, for those living in Maine or Massachusetts, their deadline to file is April 19, 2022, due to the Patriots' Day holiday in those states.

If you can't file by the deadline, you can request an automatic six-month extension by filing Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time To File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. File the extension request before the due date of your return. Remember that an extension is not an extension of the time to pay tax, so you'll owe interest if the tax you owe isn't paid by the original due date of your return (usually April 15).

Article Sources

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  2. Internal Revenue Service. “Rev. Proc. 2021-45.” Page 14. Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

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  10. Internal Revenue Service. "About Form 1040-SR, U.S. Tax Return for Seniors." Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

  11. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 936, Home Mortgage Interest Deduction: Archive 2019." Page 8. Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

  12. Internal Revenue Service. "Three Popular Tax Benefits Retroactively Renewed for 2017; IRS Ready to Accept Returns Claiming These Benefits; e-file for Fastest Refunds." Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

  13. Internal Revenue Service. "Tax Treatment of Unemployment Compensation." Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

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  17. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 301 When, How, and Where to File." Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

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